A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel, by Marlon James

In December of 1976 Bob Marley was preparing for a benefit concert called Smile, Jamaica, when gunmen raided his house. Marley received two bullet wounds (others were more seriously injured but recovered later) and went on to perform at the concert two days later.

Jamaica had been increasing in violence at the time and this novel offers perspective on what was happening and why. Using various voices, a kind of Jamaican¬†Rashomon, the book tells the story from different perspectives. We never hear from Marley, who’s referred to through the book as The Singer. We do hear from gangsters raised in horrible poverty, heads of different posses, a CIA agent, a gay hitman, a Rolling Stone reporter, and a woman who saw the shooters and hides out in Jamaica until she can escape to New York. And the violence follows her as the Jamaican gangs, armed with the help of the CIA to prevent Cuban influence, jump on the crack train to Miami and then New York as some of the most feared and violent drug gangs in memory.

Some of the narrators speak in Jamaican creole (“he come hunting for we”) that grows on the reader quickly. I can’t say it’s unnoticed but the grammar begins to make more sense.

Some of the narrators are beyond callous, carrying a bloodthirsty hatred for some of their victims often fueled by cocaine and made much easier with the arrival of automatic weapons and explosives that arrive marked as music equipment and are discretely stolen off the docks. The Jamaican police are equally sanguinary and it’s often hard to say whether people have more to fear from the gangs or the police.

The island nation was led at the time by Prime Minister Michael Manley, a Democratic Socialist that the US feared (and the Cubans hoped) was going to nationalize the few industries on the island and turn to Communism. The CIA and Cubans both tried to work with opposing gangs, neither of which cared anything about politics, to ramp up violence that would make the next election go their way. It’s thought that Marley was attacked because his participation in the concert gave the impression that he was supporting Manley.

It’s a broad and often breathtaking book, looking at the daily lives of Jamaicans with their relationship to each other, tourists, and the gangs. The timeline spans from a few years before the shooting to the day Marley died in 1981 of melanoma.

Published in 2014, it won both the Man Booker Prize in 2015 and was listed as one of the best books of the year by dozens of lists. It’s an excellent book and a tough book between the heartbreaking poverty and empty violence. As a portrait of a population and a time it has few equals.